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Georgia and Other States Accused of Misreporting Coronavirus Data Used for Reopening Plans

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  • Several states are being slammed for misreporting or misrepresenting the number of coronavirus cases and testing data.
  • The most notable example is Georgia, where some have accused the health department of misrepresenting testing data to support Gov. Kemp’s broad reopening. 
  • The agency has shared a number of misleading and even inaccurate pieces of information on its website. Most recently, it posted a graph that showed a decline in cases, but only because the dates were out of order.
  • Other states that have started reopening, like Texas and Virginia, included antibody tests in their reports, which experts say skewed the data.

Georgia’s Graph Gaff

Several states, including those with some of the broadest and most aggressive plans for reopening, are being criticized for misrepresenting and misreporting their coronavirus testing data.

Already, there are significant discrepancies between how data is reported state to state.

But the reporting of testing data is crucial for both politicians and the public to accurately understand how the pandemic is impacting their state. With that information, they can make informed choices about public health, like whether or not to reopen.

Now, experts are worried that skewed data from poor reporting could lead some states to ease restrictions too fast. Others believe that may be intentional.

Georgia is perhaps the most notable example of a state that has been widely condemned for its practice concerning data reporting.  The state’s Department of Public Health (DPA) has had numerous mishaps in the area, and was most recently accused of sharing a misleading graph.

The graph in question, shared on the DPA’s website just over a week ago, displayed the number of confirmed cases in the five most heavily hit counties over a range of two weeks.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

At first glance, the graph appeared to show the number of cases declining steadily. However, after looking to the bottom axis of the graph— the x-axis— it becomes apparent that the dates of each county’s recorded cases are not in order at all.

The graph starts by going from April 28 to April 27, then to April 29. At one point it even jumps from May 7 to April 26, then back to May 3.

What’s more, the colored bars—which represent different counties— were also arranged in different orders on different dates, further contributing to the appearance that the graph was showing declining cases.

However, according to an analysis of that data by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, there was not actually such a strong downward trend. 

“The data is still preliminary, and cases have held steady or dropped slightly in the past two weeks,” the newspaper reported.

The DPA eventually updated the graph, and Gov. Brian Kemp’s office issued an apology.

“The x axis was set up that way to show descending values to more easily demonstrate peak values and counties on those dates,” a spokesperson wrote on Twitter. “Our mission failed. We apologize. It is fixed.”

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The DPA, however, had a different explanation. A spokesperson told the AJC that the issue was due to an error in how it sorted dates. 

Other Errors in Georgia’s Reporting

This was not the first time that Georgia’s health department has made a significant reporting error.

According to the AJC, observers have noted “sloppiness in case counts, death counts and other measures that are fundamental to tracking a disease outbreak.”

The AJC also reported that in recent weeks, issues with the department’s data “caused confusion over whether novel coronavirus deaths had topped 1,000,” and that “The agency erroneously posted at least twice that children died.”

While it could be argued that some of those errors can be written up as a simple mistake during a chaotic and unprecedented time, many feel the graph crossed a line. Some are even skeptical that it was an accident.

“I have a hard time understanding how this happens without it being deliberate,” said State Rep. Jasmine Clark, who has a doctorate in microbiology and molecular genetics. “Literally nowhere ever in any type of statistics would that be acceptable.”

As a result, some people are worried that the data is “being portrayed in a way that favors Kemp’s early easing of restrictions,” according to the AJC.

Georgia was one of the first states to implement a sweeping reopening plan that massively scaled back restrictions. Even President Donald Trump, who has been a vocal supporter of reopening, slammed Kemp for the move.

The decision was controversial, and now, Georgia is being closely watched for what happens next. In other words, there’s a big incentive to make the numbers look good.

As the AJC points out, there are other instances where the DPA has portrayed and represented data in questionable manners—  especially when it comes to graphics.

For example, they have a map of the state that colors counties in shades of blue or red based on rates of infection. Recently, the health department changed the metrics so that the infection rate in a given county needs to be higher than it was before to be colored red.

“Based on the (key) they were using a couple weeks ago, a good third to a half of our state would show up as red right now,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health. “Because they keep moving the goalposts, if you will, it doesn’t look that way.”

Broader Issues With Methodology

The AJC also reported that another graph on the agency’s website “has led readers to think that cases were dropping dramatically, even though lower case numbers were the result of a lag in data collection.”

The lag in data is especially relevant because it speaks to a broader issue with the very core of the methodology the agency uses reports its data.

At first, Georgia recorded and reported coronavirus cases based on the testing date. Then, in late April, right when Kemp began to reopen the state, the DPA started reporting based on when people had symptoms.

“But because it can take weeks for case information to come in, the new method always appears to show that cases are declining, even if they are not,” the AJC reported, adding that the data lags caused by how the state records cases “mean that counts for recent dates are often a fraction of what they turn out to be when the data is more complete.”

As a result, experts have said that these daily numbers are actually a representation of what the case count was about two weeks earlier, meaning that the state’s current numbers are likely a reflection of the success the lockdown measures had.

Looking to Georgia

These data issues are highly concerning and potentially very dangerous for both the people of Georgia and the rest of the U.S.

Georgians use that data to make key decisions, and lawmakers use it to make decisions that impact millions of people in the state, but it also goes beyond that.

“Wrong information about Georgia’s battle against COVID-19 is already shaping the way the public sees the state,” the AJC wrote.

Because of that information, many have been praising Kemp’s actions and using the state as an example and evidence for reopening.

For example, in a May 8 article, the Wall Street Journal dubbed Kemp’s plan the “Georgia Model,” and used it as evidence that lockdowns are unnecessarily harming the economy. 

Other States With Data Problems

Georgia, however, is not the only state with data reporting problems.

Texas, which has arguably the broadest plan for reopening, has also shifted its testing metrics recently in a way that has problematized reporting.

“The Texas Department of State Health Service now includes antibody tests — which can detect whether a person previously recovered from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus — in its daily testing totals,” the Texas Tribune reported last week.

But as the Tribune notes, that practice makes it impossible to tell how many tests show active infections versus previous infections. That is not the only problem with combining the data from antibody tests and traditional nasal-swab tests.

It also artificially inflates both the number of tests the state says it has done and falsely improves its positivity-rate, which compares the number of people who have tested positive to the total number of people tested.

Experts have said that merging these two very different data sets basically makes a positivity-rate data unusable.

That is quite significant because increased testing and decreasing positivity rates are two of the main factors that states have used as evidence to justify reopening. Like Virginia, which until last week used both traditional and antibody tests in its case count, but stopped after receiving backlash.

The misrepresentation of data also goes beyond testing. According to reports, when it first began easing restrictions, Florida tried to suppress county coroners from releasing coronavirus death counts.

See what others are saying: (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (Business Insider) (Vox)

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San Francisco Lawmaker Proposes CAREN Act to Make False, Racist 911 Calls Illegal

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  • San Francisco City Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced an ordinance this week called the CAREN Act, which would make false, racially discriminatory 911 calls illegal.
  • The acronym stands for Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies. It is named after “Karens,” a nickname for white women who throw unwarranted fits in public.
  • These fits often appear racially motivated and have led to “Karens” calling the police on people of color.
  • California Assemblyman Rob Bonta has also introduced a similar piece of legislation that would outlaw these calls throughout the state.

Why the “CAREN” Act?

A lawmaker in San Francisco has introduced an ordinance that would outlaw making false, racially discriminatory 911 calls, dubbed the CAREN Act.

City Supervisor Shamann Walton introduced the ordinance. In a tweet announcing the act on Tuesday, he called racist 911 calls “unacceptable.”

The CAREN Act stands for Caution Against Racially Exploitative Non-Emergencies, but its name bears much more weight. A “Karen” is an Internet nickname for white women whose privilege and entitlement leads to loud complaints, threats of legal action, calling supervisors, and often, calling the police. The unjustified outrage of Karens has been documented in countless viral incidents, and in many cases, they show a clear prejudice against people of color. 

One video that went viral in May has been pointed to as a prime example of this. In that clip, Amy Cooper, a white woman in New York, called the police on a Black man named Christian Cooper. Both were in Central park at the time when the man asked her to put her dog on a leash, as she was required to do in that area.

However, that confrontation escalated when she desperately told a 911 operator that she was being threatened when she was not. Many felt her instinct to weaponize her white privilege and make a false claim could have had serious consequences considering the fact that Black Americans are more likely to face police brutality and die in police custody. She has since been charged with filing a false report after much public outrage.

While videos of this nature have often gone viral, this incident came at a cultural tipping point. Not long after it made its way across the Internet, another story received national attention: a video of George Floyd being killed by police officers in Minneapolis. This sparked a movement of people confronting systemic racism and police brutality, and since then, more “Karen” videos have spread online in an effort to hold people accountable for their racist behavior.

What the Ordinance Does

While filing a false police report is already illegal, Walton is pushing for more to be done to stop people from calling the authorities on people of color for no real reason. The CAREN Act would make it illegal to fabricate a report based on racial and other kinds of discrimination. 

“Within the last month and a half in the Bay Area, an individual called the police on a Black man who was dancing and exercising on the street in his Alameda neighborhood and a couple called the police on a Filipino man stenciling ‘Black Lives Matter’ in chalk in front of his own residence in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights,” he said in a statement. 

This is not the only proposal of its kind. California Assemblyman Rob Bonta has introduced a similar ordinance. His proposed legislation, AB 1150, would make state that “discriminatory 911 calls qualify as a hate crime, and further establish civil liability for the person who discriminatorily called 911.”

“AB 1550, when amended, will impose serious consequences on those who make 911 calls that are motivated by hate and bigotry; actions that inherently cause harm and pain to others,” Bonta said in a statement. “This bill is incredibly important to upholding our values and ensuring the safety of all Californians.”

See what others are saying: (SFist) (The Hill) (CNN)

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Catholic Church Granted at Least $1.4 Billion in PPP Loans

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  • An analysis from the Associated Press found that the Catholic Church received at least between $1.4 and $3.5 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid.
  • The report identified 3,500 loans the Church received from the Paycheck Protection Program, but leaders have previously stated that as many as 9,000 bodies of the Church received funding.
  • However, government data only shared who received loans over $150,000. Smaller churches that received under that amount were not on the list, meaning the Catholic Church could have collected even more than records show.
  • Usually, religious groups would not be eligible for funding from the Small Business Administration, but the Church allegedly spent a good chunk of money lobbying so that there would be an exception for the PPP.

Catholic Church Receives Billions in PPP Funds

The Catholic Church received between $1.4 and $3.5 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid, according to a Friday analysis from the Associated Press.

While houses of worship and religious organizations are usually ineligible for federal aid from the Small Business Administration, an exception was made for the Paycheck Protection Program, which was designed to keep American businesses afloat as the pandemic shut the country down.

The AP found records of 3,500 forgivable loans for Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, and other ministries. That number, however, is likely higher.

The Diocesan Fiscal Management Conference has claimed that 9,000 Catholic bodies received loans. Government data only shared loans over $150,000, so smaller churches who got less were not on the list, meaning the Church may have pocketed even more than $3.5 billion. 

“The government grants special dispensation, and that creates a kind of structural favoritism,” Micah Schwartzman, a University of Virginia law professor told the AP. “And that favoritism was worth billions of dollars.”

According to the AP, the Archdiocese of New York received $28 million just for executive offices. St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City received $1 million. Diocesan officials in Orange County, California received four loans worth $3 million. The AP’s analysis suggests that the Catholic Church and its entities were able to retain 407,900 jobs with this loan money.

“These loans are an essential lifeline to help faith-based organizations to stay afloat and continue serving those in need during this crisis,” spokesperson Chieko Noguchi told the AP.

How Did the Church Get Aid?

Like many businesses throughout the country, churches had to shut their doors as large gatherings became unsafe as the coronavirus’ spread continued. Masses were canceled or moved online and celebrations for the Easter holidays were dropped, causing the Church to to fall behind financially. 

While its global net worth is not known, the Catholic Church is considered the wealthiest religious organization in the world. It is also one of the most powerful groups of any kind, with an estimated 1.2 billion followers all over the planet. According to the AP, its deep pockets and far-reaching influence helped it receive federal aid. 

The Catholic Church lobbied heavily to make sure religious groups were allowed to receive money from the PPP, the AP says. Their report found that the Los Angeles archdiocese spent $20,000 lobbying Congress to include “eligibility for non-profits” in the CARES Act, the legislation that formed the PPP. Records also show that Catholic Charities USA spent another $30,000 in CARES Act lobbying.

With its wealth and power, the Catholic Church is also plagued with controversy and scandal. For years, there have been reports that the Church has covered up for priests and other leaders who have been accused of sexual abuse. Many entities of the church have had to shell out large sums of money in legal fees and settlements. 

The AP found that around 40 of the dioceses that have paid out “hundreds of millions of dollars” to related compensation funds or bankruptcy proceedings received loans. These loans totaled at least $200 million.

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Business Insider) (Market Watch)

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Employers Can Opt-Out of Birth Control Coverage, SCOTUS Rules

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  • In a Wednesday ruling, the Supreme Court decided 7-2 that employers can opt-out of birth control coverage on religious grounds.
  • Under the Affordable Care Act, employers have been required to cover cost-free contraception to their employees. Exceptions had initially been made to houses of worship, but a 2018 Trump Administration rule expanded that to include most employers, ranging from large public businesses to universities.
  • The court sided with Trump, ruling that his administration had the authority to provide religious exemptions.
  • Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor cast the two dissenting votes, claiming it could harm healthcare access for women in the workforce.

SCOTUS Ruling

The Supreme Court sided with the Trump administration on Wednesday morning, ruling that employers can opt-out of providing birth control coverage on religious and moral grounds

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers have been required to cover cost-free contraception to their employees, though exemptions were made for houses of worship who could refuse for religious reasons. Exemptions grew in 2014 when Hobby Lobby won a Supreme Court case ruling that certain closely held corporations, like family businesses, could also refuse birth control coverage if it contradicted their religious beliefs. 

Wednesday’s ruling pertained to a 2018 Trump administration policy that would allow most employers – ranging from small private businesses, to universities, to large public companies – to opt-out of contraception coverage for religious reasons. That rule was challenged by the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which claimed they would have to cover contraception costs to those who lost coverage under the Trump administration. 

The court’s decision responded to two cases: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania. In a 7-2 ruling, they sided with Trump. The two dissenting votes came from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. 

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion, said that the Trump administration “had the authority to provide exemptions from the regulatory contraceptive requirements for employers with religious and conscientious objections.”

“It is clear from the face of the statute that the contraceptive mandate is capable of violating the [Religious Freedom Restoration Act],” he added.

Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote a concurring opinion, claimed that the administration was “required by RFRA to create the religious exemption (or something very close to it).”

Ginsberg’s Dissent

This could leave as many as 126,000 women without access to contraception within a year. According to Planned Parenthood, nine out of ten women will seek access to contraception at some point in their lives. While birth control is often used as a contraceptive, it is also used for a variety of other health reasons, including regulating menstrual cycles, lowering risks for various forms of cancer, and managing migraines, endometriosis and other ailments. 

“This Court leaves women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer’s insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets,” Ginsberg wrote in the dissent. 

Ginsberg claimed that the court’s usually balanced approach of not allowing “the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs” was thrown away. 

“Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests,” she added.

Responses to Ruling

She was not alone in critiquing the rulings. The National Women’s Law Center called it “invasive, archaic, and dangerous.” The Center fears the ruling could have a larger impact on low wage workers, people of color, and LGBTQ people. 

Dr. Daniel Grossman, the head of a research group at the University of California, San Francisco called Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health also condemned the decision.

“No employer is welcome into the exam room when I talk to patients about their contraception options, why should they be able to dictate the method from their corner office?” he asked. 

On the other side, Tony Perkins, the President of the Family Research Council applauded the Supreme Court. 

“It should be common sense to allow a religious group to conduct themselves according to their religious convictions, and yet government agents have tried to punish them with obtuse fines for doing just that,” Perkins said in a statement. “We are pleased to see the Supreme Court still recognizes religious freedom.”

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Associate Press) (New York Times)

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